Truth in advertising, please! Checking out this Blu-ray cover we see the Thomanerchor Leipzig mentioned on the front, and "Recorded Live at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig" mentioned not once, but twice on the back.
We see the program contains not only the Bach B-Minor Mass, but also the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on organ, a handful of other items including a Bach Motet, violin solo, some Mendelssohn, and the Beethoven 5th. Wow! All at the St. Thomas church!
Well, firstly it turns out the Mass in B Minor is not done by the Thomanerchor, rather by the Gewandhauskammerchor. It really is an excellent performance of the B Minor Mass, and they are a fine choir, but note, they are an adult mixed choir, not the Thomanerchor which is a boys choir. But more on the Thomanerchor later.
Now we really get into the "Truth in Advertising" issue. And you can't tell me to "read the fine print", because there is no "fine print".
ONLY the B Minor Mass is from the St. Thomas Church. The remainder is an entirely different concert, this recorded in the St. Nicholas Church. The Bach motet, violin solo, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the Mendelssohn, and the Beethoven 5th are all done in the Nikolaikirche. Which is not a crime, but it must be said, the Mass in B Minor is available separately on DVD, and part of the reason I popped for the expensive Blu-ray is because of all these extras. And because I am an organist, I did really want to hear the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from the Thomaskirche.
Yes, I am well aware, Bach was also responsible for music at the Nikolaikirche. And I am also well aware, even in the current Thomaskirche there is no organ that dates from Bach's time. And I am even aware, Bach was not organist at all in Leipzig at that stage of his career. I am aware of these issues. But please, Damen und Herren, advertise your DVD's accurately and allow me to make my own decisions. This is pertinent information: the Nikolaikirche is NOT the Thomaskirche, and that's where at least half the program takes place. That creates an element of disappointment in what otherwise would be a truly outstanding release.
Now a few observations about the music and performances,
1. Mass in B Minor at the Thomaskirche. Herbert Blomstedt is a truly great conductor and this is an amazing performance needs few apologies if any, especially for a totally live performance. The tempos were just right to my ears, not too fast, and not too slow. Only in Cum Sancto Spiritu did the conductor succumb to the everprevalent temptation for speed, and ensemble suffered. Other than that, wow, everything was perfect. I especially enjoyed the interplay between the alto soloist and the violinist in Laudamus Te. That was just one of many wonderful moments. This Mass in B Minor is worthy of several more pages laudatory review, but will suffice for now to say it is excellent. Sehr gut!
2. Toccata and Fugue in D minor, at the Nikolaikirche organ. With due respect to the organist, this was not very satisfying. (My remarks may be tempered by the fact that it wasn't at the venue expected, as stated.) In any event, it was NOT at a historic console (maybe as early as the 1970's, with lighted stoptabs), and it was played thru basically fortissimo from beginning to end, on the first manual, with hardly any registration change, and manual changes only where absolutely necessary. Also the camera work was not very exciting, concentrating as they usually do on the pipe organ façade, occasionally zooming on the pipe mouths to let you know where all this sound is coming from (supposedly). And the façade here is not very interesting. Whether it is 1870s or 1950s I do not know, but is not a historic Silbermann or Schnitger or apparently anything different than what we have in the USA. So, with all respect, it was not much of the true-Bach experience expected.
3. Motet "Furchte dich nicht" by the Thomanerchor, in the Nikolaikirche (!) O dear, how I do not wish to pan the Thomanerchor, but considering this was recorded in 1999, maybe those particular kids are all grown up now and not take offense :) There is nothing terribly wrong with the Thomanerchor, but they are simply not a world-class group such as might be expected from this mighty temple of art, the Thomaskirche ... where every Bach-lover in the world would like to make a pilgrimage at least once in his or her life. Yes and frankly, they are not nearly as good as the ___________ (fill in your own favorite boyschoir, probably English, correct?) But as I say, they are not bad, they are pleasant to listen to, but how I wish it could have been from the Thomaskirche where they belong--it would have made a difference.
4. Chaconne from Partita for solo violin #2, by Viktoria Mullova, with the most excellent musicianship and technique. This piece is supposedly unaccompanied, but in this case accompanied by a choir warming up or rehearsing somewhere in an adjacent hall. Always a pleasant addition to any high-class concert with an undoubtedly high admission price.
5. Dona Nobis Pacem, a recap from the Mass in B Minor, this time by the Thomanerchor (again, still in the Nikolaikirche). I know, I know, it is from a totally different concert of the full B Minor Mass reviewed above. But appearing on the same disc, yea, even on the same SIDE of the disc, and not nearly as good as the earlier performance--that is simply anticlimatic.
6. A few odds and ends from Mendelssohn, which I am not familiar with, and sounded fine to me.
7. Beethoven 5th Symphony. This comes as a surprise, not having ever associated the Beethoven 5th with a church setting, or with a Bach concert in general, or even following a later composer such as Mendelssohn. Well, it is one of the best darn Beethoven 5ths I have ever heard, regardless.
In summary, I do not appreciate the false and misleading advertising, but overall it's a great pair of concerts.